Charlie Ehlen is a Marine veteran who lives in Louisiana. He and I have been keeping up an intermittent correspondence for the past few years. After a piece of mine gets published in Counterpunch I usually receive a comment or two, often from Charlie. After a recent piece, Charlie’s email response inspired me to ask if he was interested in an informal interview via cyberspace. In the spirit of the great oral historian and interviewer Studs Terkel, I reasoned that such an exchange might provide some insight not necessarily heard too often and would certainly be from a segment of society (and geographical region) that is rarely represented in any media in the US. The media often gets caught up in asking the opinions of experts who are often just shills for a particular product or political party. Like most of us, Charlie is neither of those. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some strong opinions (also like most of us); it does mean he speaks for himself and calls things as he sees them. The conversation is below.
Hi Charlie. To get started, can you unravel a bit of your personal history? I know you are a vet and you live in Louisiana, but not much more. Were you born and raised in Louisiana? When did you join the Marines and how long were you in, and so on?
OK, here I go. I was born (some say found in the woods, I prefer the dump) in December of 1947, in the town of Burlington, Wisconsin. I remember living for some time in Crystal Lake, Illinois and then we built a house in Woodstock, Illinois. We left there in the spring of 1959 to move to southern California. Dad had been made an excellent offer by the company he worked for to be the diesel engine service technician for all of California, Arizona, and Nevada. If it matters, he worker for P & H. They made their own diesel engines until the early 1960’s. They still make cranes and drag lines today. I lived in the city of La Puente from 1959 through high school and two years at community college. Four years in the Marines, of which two were in California. I returned there in 1972 after being released from active duty.
I got married for a second time and bought a new house in the city of Ontario, California. We lived there until I sold the house in June of 2000. The reason I sold the house and moved is that my wonderful wife, Sherie, died in January 1999 from brain cancer. I had met Ann in a grief support group and as all that kept me in Ontario was my home and two cats, we decided to get married (bad move) and live in Louisiana where she was born and raised and has all her family here.
That is a short version of how I ended up in central Louisiana.
I enlisted in the Marines in April of 1968 on a 120 day delay. That means that you have 120 days before you must report to the induction center to begin boot camp. I enlisted for four years, because the recruiter said that would give me a better chance of getting some specialized schooling. It did, I was a radio relay repairman. That meant 37 weeks, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week of electronics and radio repair school. It meant that my tour in Vietnam did not start until July 1970 and I returned to the states in September of 1971. June 1972, my enlistment was up and I spent most of that summer working on my uncle Fred’s farm near Burlington, Wisconsin. Don’t ask why I joined the Marines. I have never quite figured that out myself. I say it is because I didn’t want to get drafted into the Army. Dad and all my uncles who ever were in the military were all in the Army of Army Air Corps during and after World War Two. I had to be different. As far as I know, the only member of the family, Dad’s or mom’s side who was a Marine. For more background. After boot camp and ITR, I spent much time in San Diego in electronics schools. Then I was sent to 29 Palms until July 1970. My last duty station was at Camp LeJeune, near Jacksonville, North Carolina.
You’ve made it very clear to me that you oppose the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can you let us know why? What is the connection between your opposition to these imperial adventures and your experiences in Vietnam?
Why do I oppose the two illegal wars? Hell, that is too easy Ron. Because they are illegal! Why else? OK, that was way too flip of me. But, it IS truthful still.
I am opposed to ALL wars, unless we are attacked. As General Smedley Butler said, there are only two reasons for war; to defend OUR homes and the Bill of Rights. Unless or until OUR country is under attack, I also agree with his statement that "war is a racket". He spent 33 years as a Marine and was awarded the Medal of Honor twice. So I figure if that philosophy was good enough for him, it sure couldn’t hurt me to see his truthfulness.
Further, neither of those countries ever attacked America. They didn’t have the means to do so, even if they had wished to. Iraq did not have "weapons of mass destruction". Yes, Saddam did at one time have chemical and maybe bio weapons, but who sold that stuff to him? We did, and I bet the government still has the damn receipts for the sale. Why did Ron Reagan send Rummie to visit Saddam? To seal the deal is my guess. Now Rummie won’t admit the photo of the two of them shaking hands is a real photo. Papa Shrub was wrong in his war against Iraq also. I told anyone near me at the time that we had no call to be there then.
Also, I just hate war. I have been there done that as we say. War is the most pornographic thing we humans have ever created. I would not ever wish for anyone to ever have to go to war. I guess you can call that the connection between my experiences in Vietnam and my opposition to the current wars. The same will apply when these assholes bomb Iran.
Continuing this thread, what do you see as the connections between the US in Vietnam and its current occupations/wars?
The only connections that I see between Vietnam and the two current illegal wars are that the only ones who "benefit" from any of them are the defense contractors. Plus, they are "imperial" wars. America was not threatened by Vietnam in any way. I have read most of the paper back edition of "The Pentagon Papers" and that sure opens your eyes to the real truth of Vietnam. Ho had at one time asked America for help in getting the French out of his country. He foolishly thought that we (our government) would see that he was just a Vietnamese patriot, like 1776. Boy was he wrong. Saddam was "our" guy for a long time. Then he decided to annex Kuwait and he stopped being our guy. Just like what happened in Panama.
Wars are fought for the profits for the corporations, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Hey, you can read Butler’s booklet "War is a Racket" and he makes the same claim about World War One. Looks like nothing ever changes much.
Were you involved in any antiwar stuff when you were in the Marines?
Any anti war stuff while a Marine? No, none that would matter. We would sit around and talk about it among ourselves, but I never went to any demonstrations. It wasn’t a good idea in San Diego when I was there. The SP’s were out looking to bust any military folks who got close to any of that. I do remember we even talked about the war and why while in Vietnam.
I asked our regimental communications officer once. He was a major and a very good person as well as a very good officer. He said the he knew me well enough that he couldn’t give a "canned" reply to me. He looked me straight in the eyes and said I was there for the same reason he was. We were both Marines and we had been ordered to be there. He said he knew that wasn’t enough for me, but it was all he knew as the truth of it all. As to any politics or "grand scheme" he was as in the dark as I was, or so he said. I respected him and believed him, still do.
In Jacksonville, NC, I don’t ever recall any anti war demonstrations during the time I was there. Then it wasn’t near many large cities that I remember so there may not have been that activity around the Marine base then. I did read about it and would discuss it with anyone who would listen or debate me on the war. I have always read a great deal, still do. Dad taught that you can never have your knowledge taken away, so I try to keep earning. I like to know or at least understand the how’s and why’s of things.
When is it the soldier’s duty to refuse orders? Or, to put it another way, when should one’s personal morals override the orders to kill?
It’s a question that seems so clear to those who have never been in war, but obviously isn’t. It has been running through my small mind since I first read it. All afternoon, doing yard work, a very good "think time" for me, I have been asking and answering this one. Let me start by telling you about a boot camp lecture we had in the summer of 1968. The main topic was the Uniform Code of Military Justice and how we needed to know some of the "highlights" of the military law. As a 19 year old recruit, I knew we would probably all be in Vietnam before our enlistments were up so I paid attention, particularly when the lecturer, not sure if it was an officer or some staff NCO, said that we could be charged with murder even in a war zone. Wow, here I had thought (bad move there, thinking in boot camp) that the whole idea of war was to kill the "other guy" before he killed you. Now he had my full attention, murder, even in a war. This is a totally new concept to my young brain.
How can you commit murder in a war? Simple, kill an unarmed enemy who has surrendered or kill an innocent civilian. That is murder, plain and simple, just as in "real life". I understood exactly the message and that law, but it was still a novel concept to me. I was and am glad for that lesson. There is part of an answer to your question, you don’t kill when it is murder. Yes, I realize that war is just mass murder, but if it is between opposing forces, well, both sides know the other is trying to kill them. No that does not justify it, but it is a sort of rationalization I suppose. Also, as to when do you decide to kill or not. Another lesson that same lecture had was the following. We were all obligated to disobey any and all unlawful orders. So, if my commander told me to kill some prisoner, I would have to refuse or I would be guilty of murder as he/she would also be guilty. Part of when you decide can therefore be based on military law. Because in some instances it would be a crime. On the battle field, during a firefight, you do not even have the time to think on these things. You just shoot at the enemy and hope you and your buddies survive.
When we were on guard duty one evening, we saw an older farmer approach the perimeter. I decided he was not a threat and only called the sergeant of the guard to our bunker. (The farmer was in what is termed a freefire zone and if Charlie had killed him, there would have been no legal repercussions-Ron) Thankfully, he agreed with me, the man was a local and was most likely going home after a hard day in the fields. I guess that sometimes you decide to shoot or not based on whether you feel threatened. What is the overall situation you are in, that sort of things have to come into play. At least that is my opinion and how I acted. Also, I personally did not ever want to kill unless forced to do so. Is that my Dad teaching me to respect all people? Yes, I think it was/is. It is my personal belief as well. Killing another person is wrong.
This is also a reason that I no longer believe in ANY organized religion at all. I asked two different Navy chaplains about killing and God/ the ten commandments and all. I never did get any decent answer from them. After I was out of the Marines, I asked three different members of different clergy. Their answers were almost as poor as those of the military clergy. The basic reply from any of them was the sort as follows. "Don’t worry about it, God knows what you did and trust in His forgiveness." Well, that answer stinks, to me at least. Now I have no religion and will not have one. Am I an atheist? I don’t care for how that term has been abused. Agnostic? That seems to me to be a "fence sitter" and not very good as a reply. I would prefer to be called a pagan or a heathen. I think that a "higher power" may exist, but as to any sort of "personal" relationship with that god/gods/power, no, I don’t have one and don’t much care to have one.
I would hope that if a situation arose today, that I would still use my best judgment as to whether or not I needed to use deadly force to resolve it. I would never wish to kill another person for any reason, unless he/she tried to harm my cats. They are all the family I have and I love them and would protect them at all costs. They are just like kids. They are my kids in fact.
I don’t know how well or if I even came close to the reply you need for this question. It is what I have learned and how I have acted so far in my 60 years here.
What do you think of the Iraq Veterans Against the War and their recent Winter Soldier investigation?
The Iraq Veterans Against the War are doing an outstanding job. I only have joined two groups since the Marines. One is Veterans for Peace and the other is Vietnam Veterans Against War. I think that veterans are better at telling the truth of war. They have been there, they know what is going on. I think veterans have an obligation to humanity to speak out about war, any war. To tell the real truth about war. We get too much fake news.
The current "Winter Soldier" sounds a lot like the "original" version done by the Vietnam vets. I think it can be a very good thing. I sure hope it helps the veterans to do this. This criminal administration says "support the troops". Sure, but how does this goddamn bunch support the troops? Why, they cut veterans benefits, they provide substandard health care for the vets, they undercut any sort of mental health for them. They don’t mind that many vets, even from the two current wars, are homeless. They don’t look into why so many Iraq and Afghanistan vets are killing themselves. Some support. The "support" the troops get from Shrubbie and crew is hot air and bullshit.
On one of your recent posts, you write about the current financial mess this country (and the world) is in. In that post, you write that about the only heavy industrial material the US continues to manufacture is weaponry. That statement says a lot about the nature of our economy and, if one stretches it a bit-the spiritual nature of our nation. What do you think?
Yes, I did say that about the only thing America makes anymore is weapons and weapons systems. What does that say about our country It says we have totally lost our way as human beings. Spiritual? How are we spiritual when all we do is threaten other people and/or start wars of choice? I know that Shrubbie claims to be a Christian, as do a majority of Americans. Well, if he is a Christian, that makes me damn glad that I am a heathen. I think it says we do NOT practice what we preach at all. We "claim" to be a peace loving country, yet we have started two wars of choice since 2001. Some peace, more like we are a piece demanding country, a piece of whatever we want. Oh, and send the bill for it elsewhere. I think it has been proven that America has no morals at all. Christian? Maybe America IS a Christian nation. I sure don’t care for that religion at all.
Shrubbie says he is a "born again" Christian. Well, I don’t know about that, also, I was born OK the first time. Why he had to be born again, I don’t know. Either way, the second birth should have been aborted, as it turned out to be a rat bastard. Any way, he says he’s a Christian, yet he doesn’t do as his own "book" tells him to do. Before he goes off telling Iraq to get cleaned up, he should have made sure his own house was in order How many of "us" are without health care? How many Americans go to bed hungry? How many are homeless? How many MORE will be homeless very soon (thanks to the sub-prime mess)? He sure is not a very "good" Christian in my opinion, for what that is worth.
Do you fear for the future of this country? If so, why?
Do I fear for the country? Hell YES!!!!!!!!!!
Why? Because so many Americans seem to be brain dead. They are way too fat, lazy and ignorant. Many border on stupid, which is quite different from ignorant. They would rather watch "reality" TV with a beer than take an interest in the goings on in our government. They can talk sports or TV shows, but talk about the wars or the economy or politics and you get maybe a short sentence then off to the TV or sports. They won’t discuss much of any real importance. That is why I reply to much of what I read from you and others who write for various web sites.
Do you think we can do anything to fix it? I’m somewhat pessimistic on this count but refuse to give up trying. How about you?
Can we do anything to fix America? Yes, we can. We MUST at least try. I am not an optimist by any means. I trust in Murphy, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Actually, that Murphy guy was an optimist! No, I refuse to give up. Dad made sure of that. He taught me to not quit. Well, if I was doing something that was wrong, then quit and start it the right way. You get the idea I am sure. I don’t know how to change things, but I know for sure that things need to be changed and soon or it may be too late and beyond repair. I hope not.
If you do think it can be fixed, what would it take in your estimation to change the direction we seem to be heading?
What would it take to change things?
That is the $64 question. How do you get people to take an interest in what is really important? That could be a start, but how to do it, well, I don’t know. Keep talking to anyone at all, maybe it will hit a spark somewhere and then another and another and soon you get a small fire and then it grows. I don’t know Ron, I sure wish I had some ideas on how to change things for the better. Is it worth it?
This is still America. It was a very good place once. I think it can be again. If we all just quit and say screw it, then what do we have? Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. No, we can’t do that. Well, I cannot. Dad would rise from the dead and bust my ass for that. Yes, America IS worth the effort to do what must be done to keep it alive as a decent place with respect for ALL human beings and even for the animals.
Probably way too much more. I talk too much. I go on and on and on…………..to infinity and beyond I think. Look, America is still a good place. It must be, people the world over still keep coming here. They may be slowing down some since the economy is going to hell now. If the country isn’t worth saving, then everyone who died for America has died for nothing. I refuse to give in to that.
Thanks Ron. Your "questions" got me to really thinking about a good many things. I needed that.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org